Oscar-nominated Colombian director Ciro Guerra presents a world that is disappearing. As he films the dark past of Colombia, he treads on the forest soil and reflects upon many cultures that are now gone. “The film is inspired by the travel diaries of Theodor Koch Grunberg (1879–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001). These diaries are the only known accounts of many Amazonian cultures. This film is dedicated to all the peoples whose song we will never know”, Guerra explains.
For some indigenous people in South America, the serpent isn’t connected to harmful or dangerous feelings. For the civilisation that lived in Machu Picchu, Peru, before Spanish arrived in the Americas, the serpent symbolises the wisdom of their ancestors. Usually, this wisdom manifests itself through the healing power of shamans. It is exactly this mix of wisdom and traditional habits that Embrace of the Serpent evokes. Guerra’s call is entirely respectful to the people of the rainforest.
This lyrical and historical adventure is divided into two different times of the 20th century, portraying the encounter of a German explorer and a lonely indigenous warrior Karamatake. Shot almost entirely in black and white, the film dissects the estrangement between two cultures, that are dependent of one another in order to survive in the jungle. European white man’s technology – such as a compass – clashes against the Indian’s ability to find his way using his own senses and knowledge. The German consistently relies on a book, and Karamatake challenges him: “The world is huge, but all you see are books”.
Most of the time, the language spoken is one of the endangered languages of Colombia (there are 78 languages in the country). Actors also talk German, Spanish and Portuguese, according to the Missions travelers visit, but rarely English. This film literally gives a voice to indigenous people.
Embrace of the Serpent is impressively beautiful and elegant. Guerra knows where to place his camera like no one else does – sometimes it is all a director needs to know.
Parallel to the anthropological tale, the effects of colonialism, religion and the exploitation of rubber are inextricably linked to present-day Colombia. Indigenous traditions and knowledge are instrumental in environmental preservation, after all they have preserved the jungle for centuries.
The German explorer fails to understand that men should not enter the jungle in search of the unknown, and that there are cycles for fishing and collecting plants. A white man going into the woods is similar to making a film: it is a journey into the invisible.
Embrace of the Serpent is out in the UK on June 10th. It is also possible to watch it on demand here.
Below is the film trailer: